George Church
Professor of Genetics, Harvard Medical School

Re: Does the open-source genomics present any bioethical dilemmas?

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George Church, on the risks and benefits of genetic mapping.

George Church

George Church is a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School and a professor of health sciences and technology at Harvard and MIT. In 1984, Church, along with Walter Gilbert, developed the first direct genomic sequencing method and helped initiate the Human Genome Project. Church is responsible for inventing the concepts of molecular multiplexing and tags, homologous recombination methods, and DNA array synthesizers. Church initiated the Personal Genome Project in 2005 as well as research into synthetic biology. He is director of the U.S. Department of Energy Center on Bioenergy at Harvard and MIT and director of the National Institutes of Health Center of Excellence in Genomic Science at Harvard, MIT and Washington University. He is a senior editor for Nature EMBO Molecular Systems Biology.

So our top priorities right now are genomics, in particular personal genomics, making it affordable for the average person to have as much knowledge of their body as we can provide them. And behind that is some basic technology to make the instruments and the what we call “wet ware” –software, hardware – freely available, open source. Well, so some of the problems that have been brought up are employment and health insurance practices; the possibility that people would overreact to the information, either by cutting their life short or by asking for excessive number of diagnostics from their physician. So those are four kind of many possibly scenarios. The genetic and insurance discrimination is something clearly our lawmakers have taken very seriously. Genetic Information Non-Discrimination Act seems to be making its way . . . certainly made its way through the House of Representatives 420 to 3. It’s passed unanimously. Things like it in the Senate before, but it needs to pass. This particular one needs to pass the Senate this time, and the president said he’s gonna do it. So there is some that will change completely the way people respond. Not everybody, but a huge number of people will respond with less fear. And as time goes by, as trust will build, the same way right now people send their credit cards all over the Internet, they don’t worry about it the way they used to. Everybody should be vigilant, but not so vigilant that they don’t do things that are in their best interest and the best interest of society. It has to be a personal decision with lots of information shared.

I think something very simple that everybody can do is they can participate in medical research as subjects. Personal genome project for example will take on as many subjects as we can find. Recorded on: 7/6/2007 at The Aspen Ideas Festival